|Forest Sangha Newsletter||July 1998|
Old Insights in New England
I was invited to teach a nine-day retreat at the Insight Meditation Society's Centre in Barre (pronounced Barray) Massachusetts between May 6th and 16th this year. Bhikkhus had been coming and going to the States for years - I myself accompanied Ajahn Sumedho on his retreat at IMS in 1981, and he and Ajahn Anando have given retreats there subsequently. Since then new situations have arisen -more on the West Coast - including the Thai community in and around New York City who undertake to distribute this Newsletter throughout North America. Thinking to pay them a visit, and to be available for other invitations I reckoned a stay of three weeks - 4th to 25th May - would be suitable.
Geographically, I glimpsed a mere fragment of the country, but approaching it through the minds of the people offered more extensive reflections: themes common to Western civilisation are more clearly portrayed on the highly responsive canvas Of the USA. Such responsiveness is in part due to American openness and enthusiasm, qualities that arise naturally in a country whose ideals are the freedom of the individual and the pursuit of happiness, and whose resources have always seemed inexhaustible. The materialism that blinds the West and has begun to encroach on Asian societies is given freest rein in America; mercifully that same enthusiasm makes it also a dynamic place for spiritual practice. In the brave New World, the crises underlying the sly Old World are manifest, loud and clear- and so are the possibilities for salvation.
The United States has a history of aspiration; its favoured images reach onwards and upwards. What unites the States are such reference points as the Pilgrim Fathers, the Constitution, the pioneering spirit -the appeal of the Space Program may even be because it reaches up and away to the limitless stars. Aspiration and experimentation in terms of religion have also always been popular in the States. Buddhism is a fairly sober example, but I would estimate that, whereas its appeal to English people is because it takes them back to something fundamental, to Americans it's the possibilities for new growth and less limitation that immediately engage the mind. The European boggles with incredulity at the eagerness with which Americans pursue charismatic and visionary cults from evangelical Christian fundamentalism (which has to be seen to be believed) to Rajneeshism and way, way beyond, millions of people and dollars seem to cluster around outrageous fantasies without anyone investigating the spiritual roots.
Monastic community is not formed around everyone having the right to say and do as they see fit. Its unity comes from everyone letting go of their views and realising what is fundamental.
|This is a key: America's not strong on roots, its aspiration has always reached to the sky, but rarely touched 'the earth'. After all, the emigres who established the nation didn't go to the New World to find their roots, but to get away from the restrictions of meaningless conventions. The new society grew up in the 18th century Age of Enlightenment when science and philosophy pointed to the absolute rule of the human intellect over Nature. Without cultural restrictions and with constant technological development, the emigres' engagement with the earth has been rapacious and manipulative. Native Americans (ironically distanced from their land by the appellation "Indians") were swept off the land, negro slaves planted onto it. Now that the frontier has been reached the emigres have nowhere to go; trying to consolidate into a society, they look for roots and find that they have none in common, Aspirations, yes, but those too are towards separation and individuality. So we have the Black community, the Jewish community, the Gay community, and many more - all asserting their own right to be independent and as good as the rest. In such a light, the Theravadin monastic community can seem like another divisive fragment, an imposition rather than a means of reflection.|
The monastic community is not formed around everyone having the right to say and do as they see fit. Its unity comes from everyone letting go of their views and realising what is fundamental. The homeless life helps you to reflect on what you need, and leave the rest behind. It gets easier with practice on simple things: the night before I left Awaravati I thought I'd take the evening to pack, It took about twenty minutes - bowl, robes, books to give away, travel documents, clock, some editing work for the plane-and ten minutes of thinking there was something to remember. Then I remembered, in that strangely disquieting space of the mind: what is outside this moment is only anxiety or desire.
|I don't enjoy aeroplanes, away from the earth you witness the frenzy of the rootless society as it tries to fill every moment. Ven Karuniko and I stoutly rejected the headsets, but being trapped in, seats right in front of the video screen with stewards bustling to and fro, imparts stressful rhythms on the mind. I flitted between screen, anapanasati and editing and was glad to see fingers of land extend to greet us and draw us into Logan Airport, Boston.|
In 1981 the immigration officer had been a squarebuilt woman whose gaze bored through my retina, swept the inside of my skull and found nothing of note, signalled that I could enter. This time the officer was a pleasant man who kept a constant patter of wisecracks as he amiably took us apart. A real professional, he made you enjoy being searched ... "So you're a Venerable, heh? ... Well I used to be able to sit in full lotus ... ! What's in here, then?" We moved on to topics of Dhamma before he apologised for keeping us waiting and ushered us into America.
Dennis was there to greet us - a little nervously - and drive us out to the upstate rural backwater which is the setting for IMS. We eased into each other's presence on the way with conversation on practice and comparative environments. IMS was founded in 1975 by people who had practised Vipassana (Insight) meditation in the Buddhist meditation centres of Burma and India and wanted to establish a similar environment on American Soil. Teachers like Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzburg, Christopher Titmuss, Christina Feldman and Jack Kornfield teach there regularly; most especially Joseph and Sharon - who are the nearest one could find to being resident in a situation that is always in flux. IMS is directed by a Board of members who change, and administered by a staff of volunteers who serve for a year or two. Retreatants - called "yogis" - come for weekends, ten day courses, work retreats or on a long term basis. Such long term yogis - inevitably referred to as LTYs - may stay for half a year or more participating in the taught retreats according to preference. It's quite a remarkable offer.
Insight Meditation Society's Centre in Barre Massachusetts
|Joseph and Sharon paid me a visit before the retreat. One thing that they commented on, and which I had already noticed, is the lack of reference to the Buddha in the Vipassana community of America. In fact the point is right there: one hears of Zen schools, Vajra empires and sanghas based on Vipassana meditation practice. Rarely does one hear of the Buddhist community - much less the Theravada - and some elements of the Vipassana community draw a veil over the tradition, or reject it altogether. This is because any further engagement with the Buddha's teaching necessitates a broader reflection on living the Dhamma, and at that juncture people find it difficult to follow the Theravada tradition. The Buddha's use of conventions and precepts for daily life doesn't go, down well in a society that equates freedom with lack of restraint rather than transcendence. People also confuse the heart of the tradition with its cultural overlays, or misunderstand the monastic training; basically because they haven't experienced anything like it. So in the absence of a tradition and a Buddhist way of life, aspirants earnestly follow contemporary teachers and practice tends to fixate upon SITTING (a term that gradually and irritatingly acquires capitals).|
Questions that the staff and retreatants put to me during my stay at IMS pointed to an uncertainty as to how to sustain practice outside the retreat situation. Without a structure for reflection and a Dhamma community, the staff tended to drift into a nether world. They lose touch with each other or a theme of practice, while attending to a constant flow of visitors and teachers who are SITTING.
Bhikkhus are always welcome at IMS; there is a genuine respect and openness to what their presence can illustrate. As much of an Amaravati bhikkhu's day is one of activity, I felt that I might offer some helpful reflections on that topic. I realised that the last thing people needed from me was another set of ideas or techniques to add to, compare or conflict with previous sets. (Also I don't have any that are worth teaching.) But if there was a willingness to follow the Buddha's way of reflecting on the techniques, attitudes and aspirations that one already has, it could be a valuable retreat. So I thought I'd set up a situation for contemplating the Way Things Are, using the Eight Precepts and daily pujas as a structure and the Great Discourse on Mindfulness for meditation instruction.
But we had a couple of days to settle in first. Barre is a village in wooded central Massachusetts with pitted roads, and white board houses (the norm in New England) spaced out alongside them. It's quiet; there's even a feeling of decline evidenced by tumbledown shacks, long-since abandoned agricultural machinery and stone walls in the forests that once divided cultivated land. They told me that these slender trees-white birch, maple, beech and conifers were all I could classify-have been here for less than a century. Now nothing much is happening on the land. I noticed a few sweetcorn patches, turned to stubble after the hard winter. The trees too were still stark and nearly naked. Numb from the shock of the winter, they were beginning to put on leaflets and buds for the spring season.
We had a few walks around the countryside with Ven Gandhasilo, a young Thai bhikkhu who had booked on my retreat. He brightened visibly at our arrival, and immediately we became Sangha, did the pujas together and ate together. Within a day he was helping out by looking after my bowl and offering a nightly massage; all spontaneously and wonderfully unremarkable. Such is the experience of Sangha: so sensible and good you wonder why everybody doesn't pick up on it.
It was a good retreat. I enjoy retreats for the most part: I like to have the teaching of the Buddha flowing through my mind, a supportive situation with people looking for guidance provides a steady focus for the heart; and my own energies get channelled in a calm and reflective way. I knew Americans would appreciate having their attitudes probed and commented on with straightforward good humour (I remembered the immigration officer) particularly in contrast to my threateningly formal appearance. So I could just let the retreat happen, and learn something myself.
After a few days, smiles crept over people's faces, eyes brightened, features softened. People began bowing to the shrine and commenting in the interviews on the experience of gratitude. The Dhammic materialism that seeks to gain had been replaced by something more radiant. A sense of spirituality - a detachment from self and an opening to love had arisen where there had been just self-concern and the desire to gain; it was all a surprise, and yet totally normal. And the last surprise was on me when most of the retreatants voluntarily turned up after the retreat to formally take the Refuges and Five Precepts. That was a delight for me. What is important is what people leave with: with the Refuges and Precepts there's a foundation for life.